A Song Silenced By Hate
By all accounts, Tyler Clementi was a talented musician and a gifted young man. It seems impossible to even Google his name without coming across pictures of him with his violin under his chin, that focused-yet-tranquil look on his face of someone who gains great contentment from his art.
He hadn’t yet declared a major at Rutgers--it was, after all, only his first semester--but his audition for the university’s symphony orchestra had its director, Kynan Johns, wondering why Clementi didn’t simply declare as a music major.
“He played very well, and that qualified him for private lessons,” said Johns. “I informed him of it on the day he apparently did what he did...”
Back in his hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey, the young Clementi was a fixture on that town’s orchestra--no mean feat for someone not even out of his teens. Emanuel Sosinsky, who also played in the orchestra, commented on Clementi’s commitment to learning a particularly difficult concerto by Felix Mendelssohn.
“All the great violinists recorded it,” said Sosinsky. “He was just one of the best of the best. There was no doubt about it... Who knows where he would have gone?”
We won’t know that. As the world knows by now, Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death last month. Just as well known is why he did it: his roommate had outed him by posting a video of Clementi having sex with another man.
Clementi’s death has sent shockwaves across the planet. Newspapers as far away as Japan have written about him. Echoes of Matthew Shepard can be heard, and more than a few outlets have compared the two young men.
Of course, it’s reasonable to believe that Clementi never wanted to be another martyr. Most people who knew him say he was like most people are at 18--trying to navigate through the world as a newly-initiated adult, figuring out your passions and talents. That he’ll never really figure those talents out, let alone share them with the world, only adds to the tragedy of the whole matter.
Clementi isn’t alone, either. In the days since his death, the press seems to have become somehow more attuned to teenagers committing suicide after being relentlessly mocked for being not straight. There’s been thirteen-year-old Asher Brown of Houston, fifteen-year-old, seventeen-year-old Cody Barker of Shiocton, Wisconsin. Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, California, Billy Lucas, 15, of Greenberg, Indiana. In the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, at least four recent teen suicides have been attributed to anti-LGBT bullying, most recently that of fifteen-year-old Justin Aaberg. And who knows how many more that aren’t making the headlines?
Some openly identified as gay or bisexual, some didn’t. But in all cases they were harassed to the point of depression, called “faggot” until they genuinely believed that they had nothing left to offer the world. But as the case of Tyler Clementi shows, there most likely was a lot these kids had to share. As Susie Wilson, former executive director of Rutgers’ Network for Family Life Education points out, Clementi’s “talents died with him.” That’s true for all of them.
Politicians and pundits have been shrill in their denunciation of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the two Rutgers freshmen who secretly filmed Clementi with another man. Normally that’s about as far as it goes. But such a view vacuums these kids out of the profoundly homophobic system in which they live.
LGBT activist and writer Sherry Wolf hit it right on the head in a recent article:
“It's not technology's grip on youth. Or even the inhumanity of two insipid 18-year-olds playing a savage ‘prank.’ The crime is that LGBT people continue to be held in an official state of civil inequality that foments a soulless social pathology toward sexual minorities in this country. Official policy carries over into social attitudes. So long as schools lack sex and sexuality education along with anti-bullying campaigns, the insane rates of LGBT youth suicide and harassment will continue.”
One might also add to the list the persistent refusal of most states to recognize same-sex marriage. Or the foot-dragging from the Obama administration--an administration that was lauded for the “change” they were bound to bring--over striking down Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and passing the Employee Non-Discrimination Act.
It’s called second-class citizenship, and it creates an atmosphere where some of the more bigoted elements in society can poke their ugly heads out of the woodwork. Just as Jim Crow made it seem acceptable to harass and commit violence against blacks in the South, the refusal to recognize the humanity of LGBT folks makes it seem “okay” to do the same against them.
On Sunday, October 3rd, a 34-year old gay man was attacked in, of all places, the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of gay liberation movement. That such an act can even take place highlights how deep bigotry can run when it’s enshrined in law. The past month, as we’ve heard the stories of the Clementis, Aabergs and Browns, this awful human toll has only become more apparent.
The world will never know whether Tyler Clementi might have penned a brilliant concerto of his own. Or whether Aaberg might have grown up to be a doctor or lawyer. The potential great novels that, for all we know, may have one day been written by a Billy Lucas or Seth Walsh will never be read. Whatever great contributions these kids might have made were snuffed out when they died.
As if these tragedies wasn’t palpable enough on their own terms, the pictures of Clementi playing his violin remind the rest of us that we’re a lot poorer for losing him and others like him. Yet another case in which an injury to one is a shameful injury to all.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and socialist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and writes a column of the same name for the Society of Cinema and Arts. He has also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics, SocialistWorker.org and PopMatters.com.
He can be reached at email@example.com.